The Science to End the Baby Care “Mommy Wars”

Separate hype from evidence on hot button issues

Posted Jan 07, 2016

Juan Pablo Oitana
Source: Juan Pablo Oitana

There’s no disagreement that new mothers (and fathers) want to get it “right.” But, what is “right” when it’s your baby and you? The conversations, headlines, information on the Internet around issues from feeding to bed sharing leave many confused and unsure. The pediatrician says one thing, your best friend says something else, and an article on your favorite parenting site points you in yet another direction.

Everyone seems to have an opinion or position. It’s hard to know who or what to believe. In some parenting circles, for example, the question of whether or not to vaccinate has the power to sever friendships, cause riffs within families, but most importantly to put new mothers on edge doubting their leanings or decisions.

In her new book, The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Baby’s First Year, scientist Alice Callahan, PhD offers readers balanced science on an array of the critical topics. She has tackled the subjects that confound new parents—from umbilical cord clamping and banking to the “breast crawl” (a newborn’s search for his mother’s breast), from sleep safety and SIDS to the bed-sharing divide and vaccine debate… Name a complex or controversial topic and Callahan provides the science on both sides of the arguments to help parents make wise choices. 

What Science Tells Us

One of the most heated issues during baby’s first year is breast vs. bottle-feeding. In intensity, the divide over breastfeeding vs. bottle-feeding may surpass the work vs. stay at home “mommy war.” Callahan opens the chapter on the breastfeeding vs. bottle-feeding debate with her own personal story and that of her sister-in-law. One baby breastfed easily, and the other mother faced many hurdles and bottle-fed her baby. Even-handedly, as Callahan does throughout the book on whatever concern she is addressing, she writes, “Comparing Cheryl’s and my breastfeeding stories, however, there is an impulse to call one a success and one a failure…by most reasonable measures, Amy Bell and Cee [the babies] are both big successes: They’re happy, healthy, and well-nourished children, and both of our families have found our own ways of adjusting to new parenthood.”

Turning to the science, there is plenty of evidence to help parents feel good about their choice. “Is Breast Really Best?”, a study that initially looked at 8,000 children and their long term outcomes, “found that breastfeeding appeared to be beneficial for all of the outcomes tested except asthma.” When the same researchers “limited their analysis to a group of nearly 1,800 siblings who were fed differently as babies by the same mother, some breastfed some formula-fed…everything changed about their results: breastfeeding seemed to have no impact on any of the measured outcomes.”

Courtesy of the Publisher
Source: Courtesy of the Publisher

Callahan presents many studies related to this “mommy war,” but is quick to point out that “Feeding is more than just food.” It is love whatever way you do it and she notes, “we need to support mothers and babies when formula feeding is required or chosen.”  

It is her even-handed approach that pervades the chapter on sleep safety and co-sleeping. Here, after presenting the research, she concludes, “Given all the random and wonderful human variation among parents and babies, it would be unreasonable to think that all of us should do everything the same way.”

When discussing vaccines, Dr. Callahan does so in an empathic, personal manner that makes her deep dive into the science infinitely readable. The chapter on vaccination begins with the story of her uncle who died from complications of the measles in a time before the vaccine was available. She helps readers understand the safety concerns—Do we give too many too soon? What’s recommended today?  Charts of disease rates over the years and comments from mothers present a complete picture to help new parents understand.

When I asked Alice Callahan about the vaccine “mommy war,” she said, “Although many parents have questions about vaccines, the science on them is very clear and strong. Of all the topics I covered in my book, this was one where there isn't much controversy, even though that's not always apparent in the parenting media!”

Decide for Yourself

As a new mother who struggled to make sensible choices for her baby, her compassion gives new parents the evidence they need to make intelligent decisions. She also teaches her readers how to find and interpret other studies that provide more information. Most useful, she explains how to evaluate what you read--be it on the Internet or in academic research journals.

Throughout, there are online resources and other books to check as well as suggestions that further support new parents. They include tips for “Supporting Healthy Newborn Sleep,” “Preventing and Detecting Food Allergies,” “Signs that Your Baby is Ready to Try Solid Foods” and others, thus creating a comprehensive guide to baby’s first year.

How you adjust to motherhood (and fatherhood) is your decision alone, but when you are bombarded with conflicting information or are unsure, it is comforting to have the facts so you can make confident choices for your baby and yourself.

Related: Stand Up for Mothers Who Can’t or Don’t Breastfeed

Resource: Callahan, Alice. The Science of Mom: A Research-Based Guide to Baby’s First Year. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

Copyright @2015 by Susan Newman